After Passionate Debate, Zoning Proposal Tabled

Allan Appel PhotoElaine Quinn’s daughter’s night started with dinner at Rudy’s and ended with a broken-into car—as well as a zoning lesson.

Quinn (pictured) offered that lesson during a passionate debate at City Hall over a proposed new change in New Haven’s rules for building projects in center-city pocket neighborhoods.

After two and a half hours of that debate, the City Plan Commission decided to wait another month before voting on the proposed change, which would make it easier for people to build “mixed-use” projects—combining stores, apartments, and offices—in places like the Ninth Square and Chapel West. Those areas fall under a relatively new “BD-1” zoning designation.

City officials want to change the rules for BD-1 zones so people constructing combined commercial-residential projects don’t have to leave as much space in side yards and in front of buildings as they would if they were constructing purely retail spaces. They also want to allow for 30 percent of the parking in such projects to cover just compact cars rather than larger vehicles. The idea is to allow for denser urban living. Opponents worry the change could destroy the residential character of historic neighborhoods.

At a public hearing before the commission Wednesday night, Quinn told the tale of how her daughter and son-in-law parked their car not far from the corner of Howe near Chapel around 6 p.m. this past Thursday. They went to dinner at Rudy’s. When they returned outside, they discovered their car broken into and computer equipment stolen, along with invaluable work files.

“This happened with vehicular traffic [going by]. It seems to me it would not have happened if there were [more] feet on the ground,” she said.

By feet on the ground, she meant feet might that belong to the new, young, car-less urban residents of buildings yet to be built. Such as the controversial proposed 144-unit, 53,000 square-foot commercial and residential structure proposed- for the corner of Chapel and Howe, just a Frisbee toss from where the crime took place. That project is opponent’s Exhibit A for opposing the BD-1 zone change.

Quinn supports the Salvatore project for reasons of enhanced public safety. Yet she is also a fierce supporter of the Friends of Dwight Street Historic District (FDSHD), a just-born group of local preservationists who have sprung into action vigorously to oppose both the project and the proposed BD-1 zone change.

At least two dozen people for and against the proposal to change the zoning language. Click here for a previous article that describes the city’s pitch for how the proposal for reduction in open space, set-back, and other requirements including parking in BD-1 zones would clarify an original intent and create a clearer path for developers.

Click here for an article about the local firestorm of protest about the proposed Salvatore building at Chapel and Howe, which has morphed from a technical- language debate into a broader debate of city zoning and development.

After the debate, commissioners prepared to vote on the proposal. City Engineer Richard Miller suggested tabling the proposal because of the complexity of the issue. It requires further study, he suggested.

By that time, the commission was gradually losing a quorum, anyway. Commission chair Ed Mattison realized another commissioner had departed in medias res for an appointment, leaving only three voting members . That would mean the vote would have to be unanimous for the text amendments to count. When the commission’s aldermanic representative, Adam Marchand, declared he had sufficient concerns about the process and substance not to vote for the change, the proposal was indeed tabled.

It will return to the commission’s agenda for a vote on Feb. 20.

Friends of Dwight cofounder Patricia Kane called the tabling a “victory.” City Plan chief Karyn Gilvarg called it part of the deliberative democratic process.

The debate Wednesday night ranged from the technical—whether the text of a zoning ordinance prevails over a chart within the same section that might contradict it—- to the zoning/apocalyptic: whether easing restrictions on dense residential development in Dwight might be the slippery slope on which New Haven slides into haphazardly invoking eminent domain.

Several opponents invoked dreaded visions of Stamford.

Proponents who spoke included developer Joel Schiavone, the pioneer of downtown’s new-urbanist revival; Chapel West Special Services District chief Brian McGrath; and architect Dean Sakamoto, who in 2005, helmed a study for Chapel West-ers to focus on the vision for their neighborhood.

“Mixed use makes the city great,” Schiavone said. Security problems will go away [in the Dwight area], as they did downtown.”

Supporters agreed the text changes could eliminate hurdles and legal confusion that stand in the way of building denser center-city neighborhoods with stores and offices and homes mixed together.

“I’m excited by BD-1 because it reflects the intent of the study [of Chapel West] as a living/working/arts district,” Sakamoto said.

Opponents called the elimination of restrictions on developers inherent in the change threaten the historic neighborhood character of areas like Dwight.

Susan Bradford, who owns property next to the Salavatore property and is suing to stop that project, characterized the proposed BD-1 language change as creating an “anything goes zone.”

She has filed a lawsuit challenging the zoning ruling that granted Salvatore variances to proceed with the Chapel/Howe project. The pending suit is one of the reasons Alderman Marchand gave for his concerns about the proposed zoning language changes, which would remove the need for future builders to seek zoning changes for proejcts like Salvatore’s.

“Since it has no limits for height, density, bulk, yard, and set backs. you can build wall to wall up to the property line and neighboring building, covering the entire lot, as tall as the eye can see,” Bradford said in a prepared statement

Fair Haven attorney Marjory Shansky enlarged the context for the opposition, although she characterized her feelings as “reservations.”

“This is not Ninth Square,” where planners had a comprehensive plan for renovating and reusing existing hoistoric buildings, she noted. “The unintended consequences may be negative.”

One example she offered of weakness is that the amendment has no language or provision for creating a transition from a five or six-story apartment building to a stand-alone house nearby.

“Do not act on this this evening. I urge you to table it, to workshop it further so you can accomplish something that is fair,” she urged.

In the end the commissioners took Shansky’s advice.

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posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 17, 2013  2:52pm

Chapel West is both the commercial center for the Dwight-Kensington neighborhood as well as an extension of the commercial downtown. It is not, however, the commercial center of Downtown - the Ninth Square is. It makes sense for Chapel West to have a mixed-use zoning preference, but not to the same intensity as the Ninth Square. While many buildings in Chapel West have no front yard setback, they do have side and rear yard setbacks.
The West Village probably needs new zoning, which reflects a slightly less intense commercial district than the BD-1 for Chapel West and a slightly more flexible “village” zoning district for Dwight-Kensington, which should encourage home offices, small shops, and loft spaces for living and working in addition to housing since Dwight-Kensington is NOT a “residential” district like Edgewood, but an antebellum village that grew by piecemeal speculative building and individual houselot development, as opposed to being a planned residential community.

posted by: anonymous on January 17, 2013  3:17pm

It seems clear that what is appropriate for Dwight Street is probably different from what is appropriate for the Ninth Square. 

The corner of Howe and Chapel is a transition zone that could go either way.  Design concerns aside, personally, I would prefer a 10 or 20-story mixed-income tower there, with retail on the ground floor. Bradford’s worries about her own property should not take priority over the needs of our city.

Bradford complained, “you can build wall to wall up to the property line and neighboring building.”  Generally speaking, that would be a good thing, given that the public wants to build more affordable housing units, increase density in the city center, reduce auto use, and enhance security. The last thing we need are more buildings surrounded by driveways and parking lots.

Whatever goes in, of course, the urban design has to be done right and we need appropriate regulation to guarantee that. That means no more “Wintergreen” style buildings-on-stilts sitting on top of parking lots.

posted by: robn on January 17, 2013  3:43pm

The author of this article states that “people constructing combined commercial-residential projects don’t have to leave as much space in side yards and in front of buildings” and then quotes Susan Bradford who states that “it has no limits for height, density, bulk, yard, and set backs. you can build wall to wall up to the property line and neighboring building, covering the entire lot, as tall as the eye can see.”

Which is it? Whether authoring or quoting, the NHI should be clear, or clarify quotes that are incorrect.

posted by: streever on January 17, 2013  3:59pm

I’m curious what Stephen Harris thought (I see him in the photos)—I haven’t been following this issue closely.

In general, mixed use is a good thing, and I agree with Anonymous that the needs of the city as a whole should come before the needs of an individual property owner within reason.

With that said, I definitely am looking forward to any information that Harris posts!

posted by: Selena Hoffman on January 17, 2013  7:44pm

To anonymous:

Yes, the Wintergreen complex comes to mind when viewing the RMS plans for the corner of Chapel and Howe.  The building style is very similar, as is the method of construction:  A cheap “stick built” wood structure (which can’t support more than 5 floors without risking collapse)  behind a masonry or “hardy plank” veneer. The general look and the open ground level parking under the buildings is common to both designs.

What is not similar however is the density.  The roughly 300 units in the Wintergreen complex is arranged on a lot approximately 6 times the size of the land on which RMS wants to build 144 units.  That makes the RMS project 3 times as dense as Wintergreen in the middle of an already densely populated Dwight neighborhood.  This is clearly too much building on too little land.

posted by: Susan Bradford on January 18, 2013  1:34pm

Hello robn – The NHI quoted me correctly.  A planning professional confirmed the description in the quote. 

Note the historic buildings in Ninth Square were originally constructed wall to wall on the property lines.  But the Chapel Dwight neighborhood does not share this character.  Chapel Dwight has many low profile historic homes and historic buildings with variable yards and set backs that deserve appropriate respect and protections under the proper functioning of National Register Historic Districts.  See

What we have asked of the city is to slow down and think this through, instead of moving forward in a rush to satisfy one real estate deal.  We are not against development.  We are against unlimited or disrespectful development.  Perhaps the recent zoning change from BA and RM-2 to BD-1 should be reversed if Chapel Dwight is interfering with Ninth Square.

We have and will continue to encourage the forming of a Neighborhood Planning Agency with even representation for historic, residential, commercial, and institutional interests, assisted by objective professional consulting.  The Agency purpose would be to review BD-1 impacts on Chapel Dwight, propose zoning code that respects all interests, and to review the active redevelopment plans by Chapel West to use eminent domain for the purpose of economic development.

posted by: Corinne Blackmer on January 20, 2013  10:33pm

I quite agree with anonymous, Selena Hoffman, and Susan Bradford.  I am the owner of 163 Dwight Street, a three story house (5000 sq. feet) that is on the historical registry, and that would be directly to the side of the proposed RMS development.  In order to persuade me to change my zoning designation, I was told that a beautiful building, that sloped down to two stories in the rear and that had a beautiful garden and walkway in the rear, would be built on the current parking lot.  Be highly suspicious of this project.  It was commenced with an act of fraud and misrepresentation, and would decrease the value of my property considerably, not to mention undermining the historical character of the neighborhood.